Introduction: What Do the 2019 Global Protests Teach Us?

From the Series: Global Protest Movements in 2019: What Do They Teach Us?

Photo by Jonathan van Smit, licensed under CC BY NC ND.

Amid an unprecedented sense of global uncertainty, protest movements around the world are opening new horizons. As a case in point, in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic, Black Lives Matter protesters in the United States and elsewhere denounced antiblack police brutality and offered a radical vision for the future based on the abolition of transnational colonial structures. This series, which was assembled before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, includes brief reflections on a number of protest movements that emerged or were consolidated during the second half of 2019. Protest movements in, but not limited to, Hong Kong, India, Iraq, Lebanon, Ecuador, Colombia, and Chile have put into question various forms of power and inequality. They offer us new and very different languages of justice, methodologies of political engagement, notions of citizenship, and pluralist, intersectional revisions of social contracts. As an effort to make sense of these protest movements in perspective, the current series is an experiment of sorts. Rather than prescribing an umbrella framework with which to think about these ongoing phenomena, we started in an inductive way by asking each contributor to write openly about protest movements in their fieldsites, only to then find any common themes, which we clarify in the conclusion to this series.

We asked graduate students or recent PhDs working in countries undergoing protest movements to reflect on several common questions: First, how might ethnographically situated analyses contribute to our understanding of these movements? As long-standing concerns with sovereignty, ritual, authority, and the state have led to engagements with everyday political dynamics on the ground, how might anthropological concepts offer different perspectives on emergent global protest movements today? How can grounded ethnographic approaches—attentive to complex social and moral fabrics and informed by both intimate experiences and the public intrigue of political drama—help us reposition the conceptual vocabulary through which we understand these currents affairs?

Second, what can anthropologists learn from these movements? Participants in these movements—activists, lawyers, journalists, medical professionals, ordinary citizens, and so on—present to us skills, methods, and thoughts that demand our attention. They invite us to not only advance anthropological theorizing of politics, ethics, peoplehood, the public, and activism, but also to consider how we, as ethnographers, can attune our knowledge-production to the experiences of actors and our conceptual vocabularies to the toolkits they have built, in order to challenge, resist, and dismantle authorities.

Third, have these protest movements changed the stakes of, and our engagements with, our ethnographic work? We encouraged the authors in this series to think critically about how social protests challenge the rhythm and temporality of the nation-state and capitalism. We also asked the authors to think about how the social practices they study, and the vocabularies that index these practices into socially meaningful action, gain new significance as a result of protest movements.

The current inquiry is also an experiment in public anthropology. Most contributors are “international students” (from the perspective of the United States) writing about their home countries and fieldsites. There is arguably a changing ethos of doing fieldwork from home. Mired in these movements as students and community members with likewise uncertain futures, we have been compelled to engage with the demands and stakes of protests. By engaging with global protest movements that have garnered widespread “real world” media attention, this series attempts to explore how useful anthropology is in capturing the affectively intensive, dramatic, vital, performative, and friction-filled dimensions of the real world of protests.